Ruth Reichl has so much to tell us about food. She’s been a chef, a restaurant owner, and a critic. She’s edited Gourmet magazine, written bestselling memoirs and cookbooks, and hosted a show on gastronomy. And now, she wants to teach us about the failings of the American food system itself.
“Food and Country” begins in March 2020; Reichl’s impetus is the pandemic onset that ruthlessly exposes the shaky foundations beneath most restaurants. Serving as producer behind the scenes and on-camera interviewer, Reichl Zooms with chefs, restaurateurs, farmers and ranchers across the country, beginning with her longtime friend and farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters.
But her ambitions are far greater, which is both the movie’s boldest asset and eventual undoing. Director Laura Gabbert (“City of Gold”) tries to cover all of Reichl’s interests, which leaves her with (at least) five movies’ worth of material. We touch on, among other subjects, Reichl’s life and influences, her career as a critic, the history of modern American restaurants, the effect of post-war convenience foods, the travails of past and present farmers and ranchers, the “big four” packers that are destroying individual ownership, the politics of agriculture under both Democratic and Republican administrations, rural and urban divides, generational ownership, and the impact of the pandemic.
Gabbert also brings us directly into the personal lives of several family farmers and chefs. But just as we’re getting invested in one story, it’s time to move to the next: we jump from organic farm to kelp farm, from Reichl’s Hudson Valley home to a South Bronx community garden. Molecular gastronomist Grant Achatz tells Reichl that the story of Will Harris, the owner of a thoughtfully sustainable farm in Bluffton, Georgia, would make a great movie.
In the minutes we spend with Harris and his daughter, it seems like Achatz is absolutely right. But then we’re off to Oakland, California, where young restaurateur Reem Assil is trying to balance employee ownership and rent payments. And so on, and on.
Without the balancing presence of a strong editorial hand or directorial voice, we’re left with a high-quality but overwhelming buffet. Though it’s all intriguing, there’s too much on offer to allow us to appreciate anything enough individually.
“I feel like I’ve spent my whole life working up to this project.” Reichl says at one point, and her passion is so evident that she does keep us interested even as we’re inundated. She connects genuinely with everyone she interviews, and Reichl possesses the experience and eloquence to pass on both what she knows and what she learns.
She and Gabbert have worked extensively in television, so maybe the best way to think of “Food and Country” is as a potential series pitch. There’s certainly enough here to sustain an episodic show about the American food industry. As a single movie, though, it’s extravagantly overstuffed.
“Food and Country” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.